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December 23: Pardoning the Makhalnik

Lawrence Bush
December 23, 2016

President George W. Bush granted a posthumous presidential pardon to Charlie Winters, who had been jailed for illegally assisting Israel in its 1948 war of independence, on this date in 2008. “An Irish Protestant from Boston, [Winters] took up the clandestine cause from his perch in Miami and helped ferry military planes to Israeli fighters, even flying a B-17 bomber across the Atlantic Ocean himself in 1948,” writes Eric Lichtblau in the New York Times. “The Israelis have long considered him a hero; Prime Minister Golda Meir hailed his efforts. Yet in the United States, he was a criminal, imprisoned for 18 months for violating the 1939 Neutrality Act and breaking an embargo on weapons to Israel.” Winters was one of several hundred Americans and Canadians called makhalniks, or “volunteers from outside the Land,” who were especially active in the struggling state’s nascent air force. He had been rejected for military service in the U.S. because of a limp caused by polio, but had worked during World War II as a government purchasing agent — which ultimately positioned him to sell three B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers to Israel, one of which he personally flew to Czechoslovakia, which was Israel’s principal supplier of armaments.

“Jim Winters [Charlie Winters’ son] said his father never said anything about his time in prison or his work for the Israelis, and he would never explain to his son why he was not allowed to own a gun. Only after his father died -- and Jim Winters noticed the blue-and-white flowers sent to the funeral by the Israeli government - did the younger Mr. Winters begin to learn of his past. ‘I think the whole prison sentence turned him off from talking about it,’ Jim Winters said. ‘But he did what he did because he thought it was right.’” --New York Times

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.